Manchester Phoenix slumped to derby defeat to arch-rivals Sheffield Steeldogs and a rare home loss to Telford Tigers at the weekend as the EPL title race took another twist.
The Tigers arrived at the Altrincham Ice Dome as the only team to have beaten Phoenix in their own barn this season – and they repeated the trick with a 6-3 victory.
The Staffordshire club has been reinvented since a takeover by US-based, Telford-born businessman Wayne Scholes in October and have been climbing the table under head coach Tom Watkins and a host of new signings.
But it was an old Telford favourite – and former Manchester forward – Scott McKenzie who opened the scoring on Sunday with a crisp shot past Stephen Fone.
EPL top scorer Michal Psurny pulled the hosts level midway through the first period but Phoenix were then hit by a controversial call.
Winger Frankie Bakrlik lost his cool after Tigers’ goalie Declan Ryan “face washed” him with his glove – but when the ref failed to take action, it was Bakrlik who found himself in hot water as his protests earned him a 10-minute abuse of official penalty.
There was more penalty trouble for Manchester when Telford grabbed two power play goals in the space of seven minutes through two of their post-takeover signings, Rick Plant and Joe Miller.
Phoenix struck back through a blast from Robert Schnabel but Plant and another recent addition to Telford roster, Adam Walker, extended the visitors’ lead to 5-2 at the end of the second period.
After arguably their best hockey of the game, Phoenix reduced the deficit through a Hand power play goal only for an unfortunate clanger from Stephen Fone to extinguish any hopes of an unlikely comeback. The Phoenix goalie played the puck behind the net, but a bad bounce of the boards saw it land on the stick of Tigers forward Miika Kivaranta, who gratefully accepted the gift of a shot on the empty net to wrap up a 6-3 win.
The defeat to Telford came on the back of a bad-tempered battle with the Steeldogs in Sheffield.
Phoenix had started brightly and took the lead through Bakrlik’s poked effort but the visitors got caught changing their lines and Sheffield’s Ben Morgan broke free to equalise.
Despite having arguably the better of the play, Phoenix could not find a way past an inspired Dalibor Sedlar and they were sucker punched (figuratively, this time) by the hosts when skilful sniper Lubomir Korhon stormed clear to score.
As Manchester’s frustrations grew, the usually mild-mannered Michal Psurny was hit with a 10-minute misconduct after taking exception to Tom Squires putting the puck in the net long after the ref had stopped play.
Things went from bad to worse for Phoenix when they were hit on another breakaway by Steeldogs captain Greg Wood.
Bakrlik’s second of the night made it 3-2 with less than three minutes to play and Phoenix pulled their goalie for an extra attacker as they searched for the equaliser. But the gamble did not pay off as the Steeldogs scored an empty netter with 19 seconds left to make it 4-2.
That went down like a cup of cold sick with Phoenix and tempers boiled over with just seven seconds on the clock as something akin to a Wild West bar fight (but, er, on ice) broke out. A 10-minute melee ensued, resulting in eight players – including Manchester’s Robert Schnabel, Jacob Corson-Heron, Andrew McKinney and Joe Graham – being hit with four and eight-minute roughing penalties.
Phoenix player-coach Tony Hand also found himself in trouble after attempting to square off with Greg Wood, who it turned out was not in the mood for dancing.
There was some good news on a weekend to forget for Phoenix as title rivals the Basingstoke Bison and Guildford Flames both dropped points – meaning Hand’s men are still on top of the table.
Phoenix lead the way with 56 points from 38 games, with Basingstoke now level but having played 41 games. Reigning champs the Flames are third with 53 points from 41 games, with Milton Keynes Lightning still in the mix on 51 points from 40 games.
Hand’s men must now regroup for an EPL Cup semi-final first leg against a hot Lightning side on Wednesday before two crunch league matches away to Guildford on 8 February and home to the Steeldogs on 9 February.
Saturday 1 February
Basingstoke Bison 2-3 Milton Keynes Lightning
Sheffield Steeldogs 4-2 Manchester Phoenix
Slough Jets 6-2 Peterborough Phantoms
Swindon Wildcats 5-6 Guildford Flames
Telford Tigers 8-5 Bracknell Bees
Sunday 2 February
Bracknell Bees 7-3 Slough Jets
Guildford Flames 1-4 Milton Keynes Lightning
Manchester Phoenix 3-6 Telford Tigers
Peterborough Phantoms 4-3 Swindon Wildcats
Sheffield Steeldogs 3-4 Basingstoke Bison
Pic: Yolanda Amor-Allan